Eli Sagan Chesen, M.D., author and psychiatrist once wrote, “The concept of hell is also useless and harmful. I suspect that those evangelists who continue to peddle this asinine idea are beyond redemption. Inculcation with such a negative entity as hell makes for intriguing books and horror movies, but does little to promote a healthy attitude towards religion.”
Christianity brings good news in that allegiance to Christ brings eternal life in heaven, but bad news in that rejection of Christ brings forth eternal suffering in hell. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that hell is a hard pill to swallow. That place of fire, horror, heat, screaming, pain, weeping, torture, misery, and desolation. Is it a real place we should be actively trying to avoid, or is it just a myth? If it is in truth, a real place, then its implications should be of incredible concern for all. If just a myth… well, then who cares?
Contemplating the reality of hell leads to troubling questions: What about virtuous non-believers? Is Gandhi in Hell? What about a beloved deceased family member that did not believe? Are they in hell forever? How could a good and just God send people to an eternity of misery? Why does hell even exist? The concept of hell brings up a multitude of questions, and if church leaders, parents, teachers, philosophers, and theologians can’t provide adequate answers then the belief itself is abandoned or modified.
In the pursuit to answer my own questions about hell, I was shocked to find out that belief in hell is actually on the increase. Between 1997 and 2004, belief in hell in America has increased from 56% to 71%. Yet, I would have guessed it would be the opposite. Under closer examination the issue isn’t so much whether or not people believe in hell, but instead what they believe hell to be. Alternatives and compromises regarding the concept of hell are being adopted more and more. Hell is getting a makeover, and it is looking a lot tamer then before. This makes hell more palatable to the believer and non-believer alike, which has no doubt helped in its growing acceptance. Jonathan Kvanvig, Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M University writes, “Even those whose theological outlooks require the doctrine [of hell] find it disquieting, and alternative outlooks not requiring the doctrine find ready acceptance among a population whose conceptions of God leaves little room for the language of fire and brimstone.”
Though one (Christian) might initially celebrate the growing acceptance of hell theology, it is not praiseworthy if it comes at the cost of compromise. So I found it necessary to examine not only my own problems with hell, but the problems others have as well. In general, publicly exploring the problems of hell is only a recent endeavor that started during the enlightenment. Prior to this time, anyone who had strong opinions fixated on the inadequacies of hell kept those opinions to themselves for fear of persecution. The attitude of French author Dom Sinsart in Defense du Dogne Catholique Sur l’Eternite’des Peines (1748) clarifies why, “I do not hesitate to say that the system which limits the punishments of the afterlife has been conceived only by the vicious and corrupt hearts. Indeed what motive would a good Christian have in distorting Scripture so as to divert it from the meaning it naturally presents? …A good conscience has no motive for inventing quibbles about a matter which does not concern it.” In other words, only a corrupt hearted person would question the logistics of hell since any decent person won’t be going there and therefore not bother with its details. So if you tried to question the logistics of hell, you were indirectly admitting you were a sinner, not a good Christian, atheist, ect. Of course this was more of a problem in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is today where there is a more free exchange of ideas.
Though I somewhat agree with Sinsart’s logic here, I also see the need to enter into conversation regarding the issues associated with hell for various reasons: First, to be a successful evangelical Christian, one must familiarize themselves with the beliefs of the unbeliever in order to counter argue those beliefs for persuasion. Additionally, such questioning of hell can lead to a better understanding of hell, working on the notion that if hell really exists such exploration will only further reveal its truth. Furthermore, failure to truly analyze the problems with hell has lead to very liberal theology in the church today. Lastly, if another Christian has doubts about their faith stemming from supposed inadequacies with Christian doctrine, it is necessary to address these issues to recover their faith again. With all these issues considered, it is therefore in my opinion, absolutely critical to explore the problems with the doctrine of hell and rectify them within the confines of scripture.
First, I will cover what is considered the traditional view of hell. Based off that traditional view, I will break down its inadequacies and reveal the philosophical and moral problems many find with it. To solve these problems many Christians have through out the ages developed potential solutions which I will cover one by one to see if any are successful. Based off those findings I have proposed what I believe is the most sound doctrine of hell, followed by an in depth look at the finer details of what constitutes hell exactly. Throughout this process I would encourage the reader to think critically without bias and to do research themselves. My conclusions were reached with scripture heavily considered, but I will not be so bold as to claim that my conclusions are absolute truth. This article discusses the nature of God which is incredibly difficult to do considering how limited we are in contrast to Him, so I may have missed the mark completely. As Isaiah 55:8 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” With that, here is my analysis on the concept of hell.
The Traditional Hell
The traditional view of hell, also known as the “Strong View,” comprises of the following components:
-Anti-Universalism: Some people are sent to hell.
-Existence: Hell is a place where people exist if sent there.
-No Escape: There is no chance of leaving hell. Once you are there, there is nothing you can do to get out.
-Retribution: The justification and purpose of hell is one of retribution; punishment for those whose lives warrant it.
More detailed accounts of the traditional hell are of a place that is underground. It is always on fire and very hot. There Satan is king, and he takes his pleasure in torturing people endlessly for all of eternity. Many also believe that there are different levels of hell, where people are punished according to the severity of their sin. Additionally, there are supplements to hell, like limbo, purgatory, ect. Overall, it is a nasty place where God sends all the wicked to their eternal demise.
Philosophical and Moral Problems with the Traditional Hell
The problems many philosophers, theologians, and skeptics have with hell can all, for the most part, be traced to one big overlying problem: Hell leads to nowhere. There is no product. Hell brings about an evil that in no way brings about any good. If hell doesn’t refine someone then it is a truly pointless gratuitous evil. From this point one transitions into questioning the very nature of God. A God that creates such a pointless gratuitous evil is surely not a good God. Not even a just God, because many evils brought about by God or otherwise can be justified in the good it eventually produces. So if no good comes about from hell, how can it be justified?
God’s character is further degraded because of the severity of hell. If hell is so bad, any authority that sends people there must be evil. Why would we trust such an authority regarding our well being? This argument is summed up as the McTaggart Dilemma.
-Either there is or is not good reason for belief in hell.
-If there is no good reason, you should not believe in it.
-The only evidence of hell comes from the authority that sends you there.
-The authority that would do such a thing to you cannot be trusted.
-If the only evidence of hell comes from a source that cannot be trusted, then there is no reason to believe in hell.
Not only is the basic principal of hell troubling, but its details equally so. Does everyone receive equal punishment in hell? Equal punishment is considered by some to be unfair and unjust. Unfair in that not everyone is equally guilty. Unjust in that not all sin deserves infinite punishment.
Some counter argue this unfairness with the following: Since God is the author of morality we cannot question God on why it is necessary to send people to hell. But this argument does not stand. If God commanded us to kill and torture infants we wouldn’t all agree that that command is moral regardless. For a perfectly good God to command such a thing is inconceivable. Therefore, it is a poor argument to say that God makes the rules and thus we cannot question them. To do so would be to say the God is not moral, but instead above morality, like being above the law.
What about equal punishment? How can punishment be equal in hell if people have done varying amounts of evil? To analyze such an issue, status must be classified.
Status principal: Punishment is determined by two factors; 1) Status of the person affected. (Yet, how is this status measured?) 2) Amount of actual or intended harm. Only harm done to God, an infinite being, could really warrant eternal punishment. And only one sin against God would have to be enough to warrant infinite hell since any other number would be arbitrary. Additionally, all sin would have to be equal, and all sin would have to be against God. Lastly, if God is the sustainer and creator of everything in existence, then sin is against the created order and God. As Kvanvig writes, “Robbing a store run by a man that beats his wife is just as wrong as robbing a store of a virtuous saint, and torturing a pauper is just as wrong as torturing a prince.”
If a bad man slaps a good man and a good man slaps a bad man, one cannot rank which is worse based on the man being bad or good. However, one must also consider the intention of the man doing the slapping. If the bad man is being slapped for being bad and the good man is being slapped for doing good, now we have a rational for ranking. It is worse to slap a man for being good than to slap a man for being bad. But the problem with these rankings are that man is not equal when considered. Thus, status and ranking introduces problems for the concept of equal punishment.
Status and ranking between man may be faulty, but if God is of a higher and supreme kind, then the ranking principal can stand, right? Christian Philosopher William J. Wainwright explores this issue further, “The principal in question is not clearly false if it is restricted to differences in ontological kinds and not applied to more or less valuable members of the same ontological kind. For consider the following series of actions- destroying a flower, destroying a dog, destroying a human being, and destroying an archangel. Each action in this series appears to be intrinsically worse than its predecessor (presumably because human beings, for example, are a more valuable thing than dogs). But a restricted principal is all we need since God is a unique kind of being, and the value of relevant kind (‘divinity’) infinitely surpasses the value of other kinds.”
Wainwright asserts that value of the divine is more valuable than that of the non-divine, thus the status and ranking problems found with man do not apply. However, one may disagree in that Wainwright’s argument begs the question. It only works if one is already convinced that all sin is against God, even the slightest, and thus we are all subject to equal punishment. All forms of physical measurement to determine and distinguish kinds with more or less moral value is arbitrary. God is obviously more important and is supreme over us. But this does not justify why sin against Him is worse than sin against another person because one cannot use an arbitrary ranking system. His perfection cannot explain this either because that would make killing a saint worse than killing a non-saint.
So the problem remains. Though it may be helpful to breakdown the varying types of wrong actions one can commit.
Types of wrong actions:
1) Wrong action involving no consideration of God, intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.
2) Wrong action involving no consideration of God, but involving intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness.
3) A wrong action involving a clouded awareness of God and intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.
4) A wrong action involving a clouded awareness of God involving intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness and in opposition to the desires of God.
5) A wrong action involving a perspicuous awareness of God and intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.
6) A wrong action involving a perspicuous awareness of God and intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness and in opposition to the moral demands arising out of God’s desires.
Surely 6 is worse than 1. And though we can identify the objective notion of what was done to who, identifying the subjective notion of intention clouds everything up. Will those unaware of their sinning against God receive less sever punishment? Will those aware get a more severe punishment? To assert these statements as true is to suggest that people should receive a life sentence in prison for the death of someone regardless of intention. Whether a life sentence at a minimum security prison or a torture chamber, it is still a life sentence. Intention is critical to determine punishment. If we assume God is omniscient entity, then He knows intention and judges accordingly. Yet we still run into the problem of equal punishment despite those with varying intentions.
One argument people make to defend equal punishment for various crimes pertains to our judicial system. Our judicial system punishes murder the same regardless of how many people you murder. Likewise, God punishes sin the same no matter how much you sinned. A counter argument is that our judicial system is not purely a retributive system (as hell is considered traditionally) because it incorporates reform and deterrence (which hell does not). Additionally, humans would have to enforce the punishment which enters a problem of possible sin incurred while administering the punishment. Only the sadistic and callous could torture people for a living. Since God is Holy, He never needs to balance the demands of justice and the cost to His character.
As you can see there are many problems to the concept of Hell. Distinguishing the type of sin warranting of punishment, the victim, the motivation of the sin, the punishment due for that sin. Is it all equal? If so, is that fair? An eternity of horrific punishment for a wide variety of crimes? Arguments go back and forth and the outcomes are troubling. All paint the picture of a cruel God that is more motivated by vindication than love. So what is the solution(s) to the problems of hell? A wide variety of creative doctrines have emerged over the centuries determined to erase these problems, yet the problems they solve are merely substituted by new problems.
Potential Solutions to Hell
After exploring the wide variety of alternatives to Hell, it becomes clear that no alternatives really satisfy the problems associated with the traditional doctrine of hell. They either solve one problem only to incur another or they solve the problem at the cost of compromising other important tenants of Christian doctrine. Some even adopt theology from other religions to cure the problems of the Christian hell. Alternatives are abundant, which is clear testimony to the problems people have had with the concept of hell over time. But as you will see for yourself, none suffice.
The Arbitrariness Problem: Who is to say there are not alternatives to hell? The inadequate traditional theology of hell has lead to many alternatives hell doctrines. Such alternatives, however, all seem to be arbitrary when thoroughly analyzed.
The annihilist point of view maintains that; some people end up in hell, no one can leave once there, and that hell’s purpose is to serve punishment. BUT “Hell” is considered non-existence. God literally annihilates your soul. Your soul is naturally immortal, but those who do not choose Christ are simply annihilated, while those redeemed by Christ are allowed to experience the natural immortality of their soul.
But this view does not solve the problems of the traditional view of hell. It is an attempt to present God as kind and merciful, but annihilation is severe and not a compassionate alternative. The moral and arbitrariness problems still prevails. The problems of hell are not found in the specifics of torture, fire, and brimstone that the annihilation theory looks to solve. The problems are morality and arbitrariness. As Kvanvig writes, “Once we distinguish clearly between the philosophical core of the strong [traditional] view [of hell] and figural accretions to it, we can easily see that the annihilation view is completely impotent in solving the problems facing the strong [traditional] view of hell and, in particular, in no sense involves mitigation of the strong [traditional] view.”
Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University, Elenore Stump agrees, “To annihilate them is to eradicate their being… which an essentially good God could not do unless there were an overriding good which justified it… such an overriding good would have to produce or promote being in someway, but it is hard to see how the wholesale annihilation of persons could produce or promote being… the annihilation of the damned is not morally justified and thus not an option for a good God.”
Additionally, scripture does not support annihilation with descriptions of hell involving pain and sorrow. One could not experience such if they were annihilated. The story of Lazarus and the rich man involves the rich man present and aware while in hell, testifying to the anti-universalist and existences thesis. He also cannot escape hell, which is the no escape thesis. Such descriptions are pointless and deceptive if one’s soul is annihilated. Christian apologist Greg Koukl writes, “We read in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” Note that the word destruction doesn’t mean, and can’t mean, annihilation because it wouldn’t make any sense to say they are annihilated from the presence of the Lord eternally. If a thing is annihilated, it doesn’t exist at all.”
This view is like the annihilation view, but instead proposes that God intervenes to grant the redeemed immortal life. The soul will naturally be annihilated after death unless God intervenes, and thus God has no role in one’s demise for sinning against Him.
The problem with this view is that God sustains all living life (divine conservation). Meaning that if God doesn’t act to sustain the soul of a human He is still committing to non-action. Whether God acts or does not act to save a soul does not mean He is free of causing annihilation. Choosing non-action when confronted with an opportunity to save someone’s life does not free any other person from responsibility towards another’s death, why would it be any different with God? To suggest so, is to suggest God’s role is limited, that God is limited. Never the less, if such where the rules, God no doubt set the rules in place. So no matter how one approaches conditional immortality, God is still responsible for the annihilation of our souls. And if God is responsible for the annihilation of our souls then we run into the moral problems mentioned by Stump.
Limbo is considered the final resting place for virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants. However, this concept is unbiblical on all fronts. First off, baptism is not a requirement for heaven. If it were, then the man crucified next to Jesus would not have been able to gain access to heaven. But as Luke 23:43 reads, Jesus said the man would be in paradise with Him that day. This statement alone renders baptism unnecessary for salvation. Additionally, one could argue that infants aren’t capable of rebellion against God, even though born into sin as scripture declares, an infant makes no conscious choice to reject God. Therefore, there is no reason to suggest unbaptized infants would go to hell. Regarding virtuous pagans, it would depend on context. Virtuous pagans that reject the gospel of Christ would not be admitted to heaven as outlined in John 14:6. One could also argue that one who rejects Christ couldn’t be considered virtuous. For virtuous pagans that never hear the gospel of Christ, then they will be judged by a truly just God when they die, for which if they were genuinely virtuous by God’s standards, then He will grant them access to heaven. Furthermore, if limbo is true, then heaven and hell are not the exclusive and ultimate afterlife possibilities (also outlined in scripture), and is thus subject to the arbitrariness problem.
According to Kvanvig, “The temptation towards such a doctrine [limbo] arises from a very severe conception of hell combined with a very restrictive conception of how it is possible to achieve heaven. Once these conceptions are in place, discomfiture is bound to arise from considering the plight of certain individuals implied by these accounts. The proper lesson to learn here however, is not that of an afterlife possibility in addition to heaven and hell, but rather a disjunctive one. Either one’s conception of heaven and hell is inadequate, or the discomfiture one experiences is misleading about the moral acceptability of certain individuals ending up in hell.”
The doctrine of limbo was established because of the discomfort people experienced at the thought of virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants going to hell. Limbo is thus constructed to remedy this discomfort, instead of scrutinizing and developing a more water tight understanding of heaven and hell. Constructing an adequate concept of heaven and hell is ultimately what undoes the need for Limbo.
The doctrine of Purgatory was developed by the Catholic church based off a verse from 2 Maccabeus from the Apocrypha. The doctrine is that a level of purity is required to enter heaven. After someone dies they may not be pure enough to enter heaven, yet are not damned to hell. Thus, souls are temporarily held in purgatory to be perfected to the level of purity required to enter heaven. But since no one goes from purgatory to hell, it should instead be considered a part of heaven, not hell. It is also temporary. So if it is temporary than it is not an exclusive and eternal destination as heaven and hell are. It should also not be overlooked that the books of the Apocrypha are widely discredited as inspired texts, hence why they’re omitted from so many published Bibles.
The bigger issue with purgatory is that it compromises many Biblical principals. Jesus Christ died for the atonement of all our sins. To suggest that we would need further refinement after death to get into heaven leads to two conclusions: 1) Those who end up in purgatory that accepted Christ as savior need further refinement, and thus Christ’s salvation is not sufficient. 2) Those who end up in purgatory that did not accept Christ, and thus there is opportunity to enter heaven without Christ, rendering Christ’s sacrifice pointless. Yet in Hebrews 7:27, Ephesians 2:2-9, and 1 John 2:2 state that Jesus’ sacrifice was an absolute and all encompassing atonement. This alone undoes the need for purgatory.
Some people construct hybrid models of the afterlife, mixing Christian doctrine and Hindu doctrines of reincarnation. But reincarnation and continued existence on earth cannot mesh with the Christian doctrine of hell because reincarnation is a doctrine of countless second chances for redemption. Kvanvig writes, “Second chance doctrines then quickly become infinite chance doctrines, and infinitely delayed consequences for sin are no consequences at all.” This is in great contradiction to the critical tenants of Christianity which speaks of eventual and absolute final judgment, not repetitive refining postponed judgment. Additionally, the Bible speaks of man living and dying only once (Hebrews 9:27).
Furthermore, if reincarnation were true, it would have to last forever in which case there is no afterlife and hell is obsolete. Physical science does not allow for a physical eternity due to entropy and the impending heat death of the physical universe. Thus there can be no physical immortality of second chances. So at some point it would have to end, at which point an afterlife comes into play. What if by that point a person still hasn’t been redeemed by God? Clearly a doctrine of reincarnation does not solve the problem of hell, nor does it mesh with Christian scripture.
After death, people have a second chance to redeem themselves with God. Judgment is not limited to our earthly existence alone.
Counter Argument: This does not solve the problem of hell, but instead merely postpones the problem. People may still reject redemption. If a punishment, like hell, is considered too harsh, it is no less harsh, no matter how many opportunities one has to avoid it. If an infinite number of chances to avoid hell are given, then hell becomes redundant and the doctrine of consequences discarded.
Second Chance View:
This view maintains that one can escape hell after being sent there. Naturally there are numerous problems with this view. First, this view conflicts with scripture (Luke 16). Second, it ignores the final judgment and final consummation that is an important tenant of Christianity. Third, it doesn’t make hell any more moral than the traditional view of hell. Duration is not the solution to the morality problem. Conditional and duration punishment is a solution in a retributive situation. However, the eternal aspect of hell makes it a non-retributive assignment. As with other alternatives, if people can get into heaven through hell without Christ, what is the point of Christ?
This view maintains that all persons are reconciled with God in the end, and is considered to be the most attractive view of hell. This position is more or less the basis for Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins. There are two types of Universalism; contingent and necessary.
This viewpoint suggests it is possible for people to go to hell, but contingent fact allows that no one will. God’s saving grace and power will in the end win out over the forces of evil. John Macquarrie, Scottish theologian and philosopher shares his universalist opinion, “Needless to say, we utterly reject the idea of a hell where God everlastingly punishes the wicked, without hope for deliverance. Even earthly pendogists are more enlightened nowadays.” The objective is to obviously solve the moral dilemma of God condemning people to eternal misery. Naturally, this viewpoint has become increasingly popular.
Clark Pinnock, theologian, apologist and former professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College explains why this is, “If the doctrine of hell is taken to mean (as it so often is) that God raises up the wicked to everlasting existence for the express purpose of inflicting upon them endless pain and torment, universalism will become practically irresistible in its appeal to sensitive Christians… If the only options are torment and universalism, then I would expect large numbers of sensitive Christians to choose universalism.”
Here is the basic argument for contingent universalism: With hell there is a moral problem. The character of God is challenged. If no one goes to hell, this is no longer a problem. But this doesn’t solve the moral problem of hell. It just tries to side step it and sweep it under the rug. God is all just and good in this world and the next. His goodness is not contingent but always is a fundamental part of His character. Universalism does not change the concept of hell and does not defend God’s goodness by arguing that hell is simply a possibility, but don’t worry, you won’t go there. Technically it is not a possibility at all if there is a guarantee no one will go there. Stating that no one goes there doesn’t change the fact God created the horrible place either. More disturbing, is the notion that God would create hell with Jesus and His disciples preaching of it being a very real place where people will end up, and then at final judgment… not send anyone there? That would make many statements from Jesus and the disciples to be outright lies. Additionally, what is the point of Jesus’ sacrifice for the sin of mankind if all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus? Contingent universalism theology severely undermines the contents of scripture and the character of God. In the end, it does nothing more than mask the moral dilemma of hell at the cost of sabotaging the fundamentals of scripture.
The argument for necessary universalism is one that responds to the flaws of contingent universalism. Necessary universalism counters that God cannot fail. Since God sent His Son to redeem mankind, and God cannot fail, Jesus WILL therefore redeem all mankind and no one will go to hell.
The counter argument to that rests on the foundation of freewill. God cannot guarantee that all will be in heaven without corrupting the freewill of man. The moral perfection required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be imposed on us, but must be personally chosen. It becomes “possible” for someone to be uncooperative in their freewill and end up in hell. Whether all go to heaven or not, the fact that going to hell is even possible renders necessary universalism false.
From here we enter a variety of counter arguments from universalists:
Counter Argument 1 (CA1)- The choice to reject God is only possible in our earthly existence dependant on worldly motivations, but once one has passed through death into the afterlife free of motives they have an opportunity for redemption prior to judgment in which they could not possibly choose to reject God. This is the popular stance (among others) of universalist Thomas Talbott, professor of philosophy at WillametteUniversity.
Counter Argument 2 (CA2)- Freewill is limited when it comes to moral goods and avoiding moral evils. Just as we may interfere with another’s freewill to prevent them from committing suicide, God likewise does the same for us, which is justified because it is in our best interests.
Counter Argument 3 (CA3)- God could not create free beings capable of rejecting Him. Any free beings He creates will ultimately choose Him. Since God knows the future, He would know if a being would reject Him, and out of love, not create that being.
Response to CA1: CA1 not only renders Jesus useless (again), but assumes that external experiences can always determine and influence someone’s view, ignoring the fact that it is always possible to ignore experiences and deny reality to ensure world views are maintained. People do it everyday regardless of motive. Freedom to choose does not require the absence of motives. One can be motivated to do evil and yet the actions that result from these motives can be truly free. If one did have habits of wickedness, God could remove the habits, but at a cost of corrupting freewill. Self-determination is the only way as Kvanvig explains, “The only way to remove the fundamental depravity without overriding the will is for a person to give up his or her claims on self-determination and ask for divine intervention- in a word, to undergo complete conversion… Remove all the interfering factors, and some persons might still desire anything over union with God and thus choose damnation because anything is preferable, in their minds, to the abandonment of self that union with God implies… hence this attempt to rescue necessary universalism from the free will argument fails,” and additionally, “… freedom is an essential constituent of rationality, one could not aim at the well being of humans without honoring their freedom.”
Response to CA2: The analogy to suicide is not a fair comparison because our motivation to prevent suicide is based in an assumption for something better in the future, which for humans is unknowable. We interfere with suicide under the assumption that it is what is best for the individual without actually knowing with certainty if it actually is. God, by comparison, does not have this problem since He is capable of knowing our intents and futures. This is the precise reason why He has prolonged the impending end judgment as mentioned in 2 Peter 3:9, for the sake of those that might still be saved. To suggest that people’s freewill will be overridden for their own good after death makes the decision to hold off on the final judgment pointless. Why would a teacher give students additional time to study for a test (for the purpose that they don’t fail) if he planned on giving the class all A’s regardless of how well they do. Likewise, again, we find the life of Jesus pointless under this theology. To believe God would permanently override the freedom of the rebellious to secure them a place in heaven contradicts the need for Jesus and the nature of God as written in the Bible.
Response to CA3- To suggest God cannot create any beings that would reject Him is to limit God, suggesting he doesn’t have the freewill to do so. But since God is not limited He can therefore create such beings. The difference of “would” God do that, or “could” God do that, becomes irrelevant because in order to defend this argument one would have to logically defend that God “could not” create these types of beings, not merely that he “would not.” The possibility alone that God could create such being renders this counter argument null and void. Besides, don’t we all recall what the very first created beings did? They rejected and rebelled against God. The whole notion of sin and Christ’s redemption from this sin originating from the very first created humans means that God created humans capable of rejecting Him, with full knowledge that they would.
Kvanvig concludes, “…necessary universalism does not offer a solution to the problem of hell. Necessary universalism may offer a comforting response to the question of why God would create anyone who chooses hell, but it is a comfort bought at the price of verisimilitude.”
In the end, many of the alternatives presented like universalism are heavily defended based on the premise that since the traditional view of hell is barbaric and evil, that alternatives must be true! But this is a fallacy of dilemma. Your choices are not limited to merely a traditional view of hell or an outlandish alternative. There is another option. Perhaps our understanding of hell is slightly skewed and shallow. If we can revisit and reanalyze the concept of hell, I believe it is possible to achieve a morally and biblically sound concept of hell that has none of the flaws found in the traditional view nor any compromising alternatives.
–Reconstructing a Biblical-based Hell
With all the traditional views of hell and subsequent compromising alternatives riddled with problems, a reconstruction of hell is sorely needed. With careful consideration of the Bible’s contents regarding God’s character, the purpose of Jesus, and the descriptions of hell, I believe it is possible to establish a concept of hell that meets all scriptural requirements and solves most, if not all, of the problems previously mentioned. However, the first step towards developing this concept has to involve the proper identification of hell as a spiritual existence, and not a geographic location.
The Geographic Problem: A common factor for disbelief in hell and heaven among contemporary people is due to Christianity’s preaching of it as a geographical location with people “sent” to hell. Instead we should understand heaven and hell in a metaphysical orientation. Per Kvanvig, “Without the metaphysical orientation, the fictionalizing of hell in the minds of non believers will be a continuing irritant to those who take the doctrine seriously.” Just as the Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual one, hell is likewise a spiritual state of existence. With this established, it is easier to negotiate the problems found with traditional and alternative views of hell, while establishing a more sound concept.
The next step in the process should be to understand the character of God. The Bible declares God is one of true love, but also true justice. The reoccurring issue however, is that when ever Christians speak of heaven we attribute it to God’s love. But whenever they speak of hell, we attribute it to God’s justice. Why do we move from love to justice when discussing God condemning people to hell? Does justice override His love? Shouldn’t we be able to swap characteristics and say that with heaven we see God’s justice and hell we see His love?
Kvanvig writes, “Traditional Christian accounts of hell begin by characterizing God’s fundamental desire in relation to humanity as a desire for union with human bengs, but in the discussion of hell, this portrayal is abandoned. No longer does love seem to be part of the picture at all, instead God’s dominant motive is portrayed in terms of justice (at best) or vindictiveness (at worst). Moreover, usually nothing is added to assuage the concern that this shifting of motivational bases for action is more befitting the mentally incompetent than the fully rational.” Character that is primarily motivated out of love, then in another instance primarily motivated out of justice may work with fallible imperfect human beings. But God is perfect and infallible, so such characteristics are not possible for God.
This dilemma has lead to different understandings of God’s character. For example, St. Augustine once wrote, “How, who but a fool would think God unfair either when [H]e imposes penal judgment on the deserving or when [H]e shows mercy to the undeserving?… [T]he whole human race was condemned in its apostate head by a divine judgment so just that even if not a single member of the race were ever saved from it, no one could rail against God’s justice.” Augustine believed that God ONLY loves those He grants eternal life to and hates those He sends to hell, thus potentially solving the dilemma.
British philosopher Peter Geach believes that God is so sovereign that all creation is mere dust to Him. He does not suffer at our loss. This is a portrayal of a God that doesn’t care for us as much as we’d like to think. Thus it is no surprise that He can condemn people to hell.
The counter argument to Geach’s notion that God does not love us that much at all or St. Augustine’s notion that God only loves those He grants eternal life to is remedied by Talbott. Talbott argues that if God is capable of loving a few, He must love all. This is something scripture correlates with (John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9). Thus St. Augustine and Geach’s theories of God’s character do not solve the dilemma.
Some theologians also utilize God’s sovereignty, as Geach did, to put forth the idea that God is above all morality. The moral issue of hell is solved on the simple grounds that God has to answer to no one regarding His morality. This is often supported by the book of Job, in which we read that God is not answerable to us. Though I agree that God is so sovereign that He does not have to answer to anyone, this does not solve the moral problem of hell. If God is above morality, than nothing He does can be considered good or right. We would additionally have no way to gauge morality at a human level. And since the Bible testifies that God is good, just and righteous all the time, then it would not be appropriate to say He is above morality, but instead that He fulfills and demands morality. If everything God does is good, than He is always moral because He is the root of morality, and thus His sovereignty is preserved. Consequently, humans are subject to this morality that God is the source for. In the book of Job we learn that God is good and moral in all that He does, solidifying why He is unanswerable to us. So, if Hell exists, then it has to be able to fit with the morally good and righteous character of the God who created it.
A very important characteristic of God’s love and goodness is that it has more weight than justice as His primary motivation. For example, all of creation was created out of God’s love and goodness. Creation couldn’t have originated from God’s justice, as justice is reactive, a response to particular situations. So God must be driven primarily by love, not solely justice. Why else would he postpone his judgment of earth in order to facilitate the salvation of more souls as mentioned in 2 Peter? Clearly it is because God is primarily motivated out of love.
With that, I believe it is possible to establish the following:
-God has a primary motivation of love.
-God is equally just as He is loving.
-But this justice can never act separate from the primary motivation of love.
-Therefore, hell cannot be explained by only God’s justice, but by His love as well.
Two great ideas that tackle the problem of hell while preserving God’s character of love are that of C.S. Lewis’ Incarnation Thesis and Eleonore Stump’s Quarantine Model.
Incarnation Thesis: Lewis explains his theory as follows, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end, that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. I do not mean the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
Religious author J. Stephen Lang agrees, “By our own choice we come running to God, sorry for our failures and wishing to be forgiven and accepted. Or we choose to live strictly for ourselves, ignoring God and neglecting our duties to other people. Hell is like locking ourselves up in a closet, shutting out God and other people.”
One is not in hell because of God, but from ones own commitment to their rebellion against God. Just as it is more appropriate to state that a murderer is in prison because he murdered, rather than say he is in prison because of the judge that sentenced him to prison. One must recognize why they’re in hell rather than who issued the sentence. People are unwilling to abandon themselves and are thus hopeless, confining themselves to Hell.
Quarantine Model: Stump’s view is that hell is a quarantine to keep sinners from infecting the righteous in heaven. Since the damned can never will freely as God’s will (the prerequisite for heaven) the damned are quarantined outside of heaven, which is morally justifiable for a loving God. People can escape, but no one ever does. They are preserved, but can’t coexist with God in heaven.
Both mentioned models constitute an exile doctrine: The heavenly community lacking in hell is what makes it such a bad place. It is in contrast to the perfect bliss achieved when in union with God in heaven.
Now though I believe the quarantine model is the most appropriate to explain why God created hell, it is not without its problems. The problem being taken from an analogy regarding human incarceration vs. capital punishment (an analogy for exile doctrine vs. annihilation doctrine). Capital punishment may be considered the better of the two if life imprisonment is painful, torturous or maddening. Therefore, life imprisonment may not be morally preferable to capital punishment. Based off of one’s view of the evil of death one could go either way, and therefore it is possible that annihilation is more moral than exile. Yet, the previous mentioned problems with the annihilation doctrine remain. And for that reason, I believe that an exile doctrine is more sound.
One could argue that the exile doctrine is supported by scripture in addition to rational. The story of Lazarus and the rich man depicts the no-escape thesis in which the rich man’s actions in life lead to his predicament in hell. Frederick Bruce, the late biblical scholar and former head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield, writes, “…the impassable gulf, in fact, was the rich man’s own creating.”
So, after analyzing the fundamental moral problems with the traditional hell, I believe the following can be established:
-Anti-Universalism: Some people are sent to hell.
-Existence: Hell is a place where people exist if sent there.
-No Escape: There is no chance of leaving hell. Once you are there, there is nothing you can do to get out.
-Exile: People are not in hell for the reasons of punishment. People are in hell under their own free will, eternally separated from God because they cannot will freely as God’s will. This state of exile is however, one of eternal pain and sorrow.
This concept of hell is identical to the traditional concept of hell except for one facet; the primary motivation for hell is not retributive. If hell is instead a place of exile, then hell is no longer incompatible with God’s love.
Now some might argue that switching from retribution to exile is an attempt to weaken the severity of hell. But as Kvanvig writes, “…one need not impugn the goodness of God by making [H]im out to be a master torturer in order for hell to be as bad as anything.” Indeed, an exile from the righteousness of God for all of eternity should not be considered an easy walk in the park. This eternal separation is instead one of never ending sorrow and pain which we shall explore next.
–The Fine Details
With the general concept of hell rescued with the exile doctrine, there is still so much to question when we consider the finer details. Where is hell? What is it like? Here I will try my best to cover some of the most popular questions regarding the nature of hell and dispel many myths.
Is hell eternal? This question is the easiest to answer. Numerous verses all through out the Bible speak of the Hell being an eternal never ending final judgment. See, Matthew 18:8, Matthew 25:46, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7:12-13, and Revelation 14:11.
Is Hell underground below us? Naturally this makes sense with very shallow consideration since hell is a place of hot fire and the internal composition of earth is hot liquid magma. But this notion is illogical and unbiblical. Illogical in that hell is a supernatural experience of separation from God, not a physical geographical location. If it were a physical location then it could be somewhat possible for us to travel there, or for those committed there to escape. This notion is also unbiblical in that the Bible does not state that hell is below us.
Now some argue that Bible does say that hell is below us in Luke 10:15, Ephesians 4:9, 1 Samuel 28:13-15 and Revelation 20:3. However, when analyzed, Luke uses the language of traveling “down” to hell, nothing suggesting below ground. In proper context “down” pertains to action and status, that is, an action of condemnation to beneath the elevated holiness of heaven. Same goes for Ephesians 4:9 which says Jesus ascended to the lower earthly regions. Jesus being God, leaving heaven, a righteous holy place, to go to earth, a place “lower” in status than heaven. 1 Samuel is not a good example of hell being underground either for various reasons: First, it is a medium’s vision, not an account of something that actually happened. Second, the spirit mentioned coming out of the ground was Samuel. Are we suggesting Samuel the prophet of God is spending eternity in hell? Third, there is no escape from hell once sent there per Biblical doctrine. Samuel rising out of the ground from hell would violate this doctrine. In fact, the only description of Hell that I believe can warrant some sense of an underground location is Revelation 20:3 in which hell is described as the bottomless pit. But, a bottomless pit has no bottom, and thus could not be within earth. Clearly, the description of hell is supernatural, not a geographical place underground.
Is hell a place of eternal fire and brimstone? Well, we all know what fire is, but what the heck is brimstone? Brimstone is actually an old reference for sulfur, which we all know is odorous and has common place near volcanic activity. Fire and brimstone is often used as another way of saying the fires of hell.
However, one should not believe hell has a monopoly on fire and flame. Fire and flame is used often in the Bible and does not always mean torture and pain. Elijah the prophet was taken to heaven on a chariot of fire. God is often described as shrouded and flame. The burning bush is considered the presence of God. So clearly we see that fire should not always be considered a symbol of hell, evil, torture and pain. At that, some people argue that God’s numerous depictions with flames and hell’s likewise depiction with flames means that God is present in hell to redeem lost souls to enter heaven. Such a theory is not warranted by scripture though as it violates the no escape thesis, contradicting God’s final judgment and Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.
So is there really fire in hell though? Many theologians believe that the description of fire and brimstone is more so a description of what hell is like than what it literally is. The Bible speaks of the valley of Gehenna (or Hinnom) a few times, which was a refuse heap where items were discarded and burned day and night. Though fire was apart of this valley, the point of the valley was a place where items were discarded and cast away. Its references in the Bible are therefore a more appropriate description of separation, loss, and lack of worth, not burning torture. Additionally, we see descriptions of hell unrelated to fire, like Revalation’s description of hell as a bottomless pit. Lang writes, “Is it [hell] a ‘literal’ fire? That question misses the point. The point is that the person who chooses to separate himself from God is in the worst possible circumstance.”
Some descriptions of hell seem to contradict each other. Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30 describe hell as he “outer darkness.” Yet in other accounts we read of flame and fire. This becomes a contradiction as flame and fire produces light, the opposite of darkness. With that I believe there are only two possible ways to look at this contradiction. Either it is testimony to the supernatural aspect of hell in which the darkness and flame aren’t necessarily literal experiences, but instead metaphoric experiences of hell as intense isolation and pain. Whether metaphoric or literal, we can conclude it is dreadfully bad. The other way to understand this contradiction is a theology of different levels of hell.
So are there different levels of hell? Many theologians believe that there are indeed different levels of hell based on scripture’s depictions of such. Matthew 11:20-22 states that those that did not repent after seeing Christ’s miracles would fair far worse than those in the city of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom on the day of judgment. Luke 12:47-48 and Hebrews 10:29 states that the level of offense while determine the level of punishment. John 19:11 states that some sins are greater than others. Koukl writes, “You don’t cut off somebody’s arm for stealing a loaf of bread. You give a punishment equal to the crime. Jesus says there are crimes that are more heinous than others and, therefore, it stands to reason that the punishment will be greater for those crimes that are more heinous. It can’t be greater in terms of duration because the duration is the same for everyone. It must be greater in terms of intensity which is supported by Jesus’ words and practical reason.” So for those that take the descriptions of hell in the Bible as literal descriptions of what hell actually is, this can be rationalized with varying levels or severity of pain in hell.
Does Satan rule in hell? All depictions of Satan in hell are not ones of power, but of persecution. We must not forget that it was not Satan that created Hell, but God. Don’t be mislead by the book Paradise Lost in which Satan states that it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Hell is a place of eternal pain, weeping and gnashing of teeth. It will be a very unpleasant place for all those there, including Satan. Another thing to consider is that Revelation 20:3 states that Satan will be locked in hell. Why would he need to be “locked” in hell if he desired to be there? Clearly even Satan does not wish to reside in hell.
Will those in heaven be able to view hell from heaven? Though one cannot pass from hell to heaven or visa versa, there still seems to be some scripture that eludes to the possibility of being able to view those suffering in hell from heaven (Isaiah 66:22-24, Luke 16:23-24, and Revelation 14:9-11). Why would this viewing be available? Some argue that viewing the horrors of hell will serve to highlight the greatness of heaven. Past archbishop of Dublin, William King wrote, “The goodness as well as the happiness of the blessed will be confirmed and advanced by the reflections naturally arising from their view of the misery which some shall undergo.”
This can be problematic however as some skeptics point out the immorality of getting pleasure from seeing the afflicted tortured. But the Bible does not suggest this is motivated out of pleasure, but that there will be a sense of relief and justice from witnessing the plight of the evil. The joys in heaven will be more properly experienced and understood via witnessing the afflicted.
Will there be more people in hell than heaven? With all these details analyzed a long held argument against the doctrine of hell regarding population should be addressed. As scripture declares numerously, there will be less saved than those lost (Matthew 7:14, 22:14, and Luke 13:24). Even the term “elect” refers to a smaller population. This brings about a problem for the doctrine of hell. As Daniel Walker, past English historian for the Warburg Institute for the University of London explains, “…if the universe, let alone its admitted present defects, is to contain for all eternity a heavy preponderance of evil both physical and moral, that is, the great mass of the wicked and tormented damned compared with a handful of happy saints, then it is difficult to explain why a good God created it.” Indeed, why would God create humans with foresight knowledge that the vast majority would be suffering in hell? And if so, wouldn’t that mean Satan’s kingdom is greater than God’s?
The counter argument to this problem can be remedied by an understanding of exactly who goes to heaven. Naturally, those that give their lives to Christ go to heaven. As of 2009 it was reported that over 2 billion people in the world were Christian, constituting one-third of the world population. Granted those numbers haven’t always been that high and being labeled a Christian doesn’t guarantee salvation and admittance to heaven. Additionally, those that have never been exposed to the redemption of Christ will be admitted to heaven via God’s just judgment concerning how they lived their lives. Such a number is unknowable, especially over the course of history. Moreover, all infant deaths would be candidates for heaven as well. According to the Center for Disease and Control, for every 1,000 children born in America, 4 to 5 did not live past infancy as of 2008. In less developed nations like Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia, over 100 infants die for every 1,000 born. Naturally, infant mortality through out the history of mankind has always been drastically higher, and it is only in more modern times we see figures this low. For example, in ancient Rome it has been calculated that 28% of all infants born did not survive to their first birthday. Lastly, if life begins at conception (as scripture would support) then all miscarriages result in human life that is candidate for heaven. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), 10-25% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage. It is also speculated that miscarriage rates were much higher in the past. As theologian Matthew Horbery writes, “…one half of our species die, perhaps, before they have actually committed any sin to deserve the damnation of Hell.”
Therefore, when we consider the population of genuine Christians historically, the potential admittance of some peoples never exposed to the gospel of Christ, infant mortality, and miscarriages, it is acceptable to argue that the population in heaven will be incredibly vast. Scripture detailing the road and doorway being small and rarely taken doesn’t pertain to miscarriages or deceased infants, but instead to the living mature. So, whether the minority or the majority, the population in heaven should be considered very sizeable. And thus, the goodness of God should not be questioned regarding population comparisons between heaven and hell.
After exploring the philosophical concept of hell and its details in scripture, I believe that an exile doctrine is the most appropriate doctrine for hell. God does not send people to hell to be punished. Instead, people are separated from God, deprived of His holiness, which is painful and in effect a punishment. The point is not retribution, but separation. The descriptions of hell aren’t retributive, but description of effect from this separation. This is not to say hell does not operate as an existence of punishment. It is an existence of punishment indeed. The primary motivation for this punishment however, is not rooted in retribution.
Under this concept of hell, virtually all the problems associated with a doctrine of hell fall away. The no escape thesis, a problem for many sensitive Christians, is only a problem for a retribution motivated hell. With hell instead being a place of exile, the no escape problem evaporates. Self-determination leads to our rejection of God, to which God cannot be in union with us for eternity, and thus you are exiled into the misery of hell for your rejection of God’s redemption found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is my hope that in better understanding the concept of hell it will no longer be a subject of compromise in the modern church. It should be upheld as a very real existence in the afterlife in a Biblical sense, not the traditional sense. A place of infinite separation, loss and despair. Not a fiery torture chamber where demons administer punishment for fun. Getting away from the traditional and alternative views of hell, in my opinion, will prove to be more effective in bringing people to repentance.
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